Playing with the Company 7: Dissipating Shadows

"Almost the first thing the Company discovered, when it went into this time travel business so many ages ago, was that history cannot be changed. Recorded history anyway. But if you work within the parameters of recorded history, you actually have quite a bit of leeway, because recorded history is frequently wrong, and there are always event shadows-places and times for which there is no recorded history."
Kage Baker, The Children of the Company

Recorded history is a complex and elaborate thing. The cyborgs of the Company play in its shadows, slither between the footnotes, in the gray area where lack of detail or sheer inaccuracy allows them to operate. Sometimes, the lack of information allows them to enjoy a great deal of freedom. A sense of uncertainty and adventure lurks in the event shadows.

The concept of the event shadow strikes a familiar chord with all authors, but especially those who write derivative fiction, or designers who create games based on existing "properties" (the dirty word for "beautiful worlds"). When you create content within the framework provided by an existing narrative, such as historical records or a science-fiction story, and when you aim to stick to the canon of how everything happens (which is but one possibility), you have to forego some potential interactions. This happens whether the derivative content is created by a filmmaker or co-created by participants in a roleplaying game. Event shadows are those loose ends in the existing narrative you can take over and create meaningful content with, without feeling too much entangled by the existing content. They are spaces of freedom for you to seize and use to express your voice. Whatever is not preordained, can be changed.

Escaping the panopticon
The Company series, brilliantly, highlights the shadows: adventure takes place behind the scenes of History. Event shadows are important events in Kage Baker's novels. In ancient times, they span countries and decades -or millenia. As time passes by, they get smaller and more localized. The advent of the information age narrows these spaces of uncertainty up until the point where almost everything seems to be under supervision. This is the panopticon age.
The Company knows what its employees do, too. Except when, for whatever technical reason, it does not. Those are event shadows of a special kind: turning points, when you can breathe away from the surveillance system of the Company, places and times when you can be a criminal, advance your own plots, tie and untie your knots. They are the beacons of hope in a History crushed by the watchful eye of the 24th century.
In a game set in the Company setting, event shadows should be both feared and hoped, as they provide unique opportunities to change things and settle accounts.

Playing with the Company 6: Kage Baker online

This is an incomplete list of online references about Kage Baker on Internet, to be updated little by little.

Begin your journey on the Kage Baker official website. Then sail to Kathleen's blog. (Kathleen Baker continues her sister's work.)

On your way for further reading, stop by the excellent Wikipedia notices about Kage Baker and the world of the Company. The main references are there and this list is but a complement.

Kage Baker speaks. There is an interview with Green Man Review (2005) and other resources on the Green Man Review site. There is another interview, with Jeff VanderMeer for Clarkesworld Magazine (2008).

Then there are the forums, such as the Kage Baker sub-forum at SFF chronicles.

The Google+ page dedicated to discussion about the gaming potential of the Company novels provides secondhand information has closed with the rest of the platform.

Demimonde: interview with Justin Achilli

Demimonde is an urban fantasy novel by Justin Achilli, a game designer best known for his contributions to the Vampire roleplaying games by White Wolf. I read some time ago the Clan Novel Saga, a series of intertwined stories by a collective of authors using the setting of Vampire: The Masquerade. I did like Justin Achilli's style in the parts about the Giovanni and I decided to give his latter, completely unrelated novel a try. After reading Demimonde, I wished to better understand what the author had had in mind and he was gracious enough to reply to the questions below. For better and more recent information about the novel, please direct yourself to Justin's blog.
Beware: spoilers.

We don’t learn what the demimonde factions are about until quite late in the story, and many elements are left in the dark (e.g. of a possible interpretation, is it about reincarnation of archetypal figures?). I guess you did it to build a sense of mystery and prevent readers from getting comfortable, blasé and dismissive (oh, that is some Arthurian myth cult). I understand this is a story, not a sourcebook, but did you consciously draw a line between what you wanted to include (e.g. the religion) and what you wanted to leave out in the dark (who are these people)?

J.A.: I specifically wanted to leave some groups in the dark because in horror and fantasy, it's an effective way to achieve horror and wonder by not explaining everything and letting the reader's mind fill in the blanks or create his own details. For a long time, it's been difficult to get a sense of true horror from the World of Darkness because we have so many sourcebooks that give so many answers, it's easy for a play to say, "Oh, I know what that is," like you mention. As well, I think readers feel a sense of ownership over a world when they invest it with their own imagination, as opposed to having the author dictate everything to them.

About the religion. The two factions are quite evocative of the Circle of the Crone and Lancea Sanctum covenants in Vampire: The Requiem, a book you co-authored. Do you think that religious practices are the most successful tools leaders can use to rally and factionalize people in this day and age? Or that the focus on religious frontlines is perhaps a by-product of the sheer longevity of the unvisible feuds, in the same way the Catholic Church is one of the oldest institutions in the world?

While I will certainly acknowledge the excesses of organized religion, I'm not so cynical as to see religion as purely a tool of manipulation. That's really what the book is about: Brandon's struggle with faith and his ultimate failure to be able to make the leap and trust something that he hopes is larger than himself. Vampire trades in those themes as well, and it uses religious institutions in a similar way. No matter what their names or individual dogmas, every organization in the World of Darkness, spiritual or secular, has its earnest adherents and its manipulators. Narcisse represented the worst of those manipulators and Wyckham represented the best of the faithful, and even though Brandon ultimately defeats Narcisse as a person, he fails to overcome her venality spiritually.

The narrator accumulates flaws of character: misogynist, racist, irresponsible. Even though he does not explicitly look to hurt other human beings, his excesses ultimately make at least one true innocent victim. Plus, some parallels could be drawn between the demimonde in the novel and nightlife in our world. Did you want to write a moral tale about the life of a binge drinker/partygoer?

Without getting maudlin, this was a book about things I've done and failures I've had and mistakes I've made more than once, yes. It's not necessarily about the evils of booze and partying specifically, it's about how small and myopic a life can be without the presence of something that offers a greater purpose. It doesn't have to be God or morality that fills that role, but I think everyone has a great existential question at some point, and answering that question with, "Fuck it, let's get loaded" isn't a real answer and invariably results in the abandonment of the self.

Please be the “hipster douche” (*) and tell us what music to listen to while reading the novel.

You know, for a long time, I had kept the playlist in my iTunes, but I think the time for that has gone. Music is a pretty transient thing in terms of this book, and if the story happened now, none of the songs would be the same as they were when I wrote it six years ago. I remember reading an interview with Bret Easton Ellis in which someone asked him why he made so many popular culture and brand name references in his work and wouldn't they end up making the book feel dated. His response was that that was the intent, that there was something beautiful about the book becoming progressively more obsolete as time went by, that it really lent the whole thing a sense of a moment in time. There are a few songs and bands in there called out specifically, but as much as I love music, I didn't want the book to be about music. By contrast to Bret Easton Ellis' comments, I read China Mieville's King Rat a while back and I couldn't ever get into the book itself because it felt like an evangelical pamphlet for drum & bass. Kind of like I want readers to fill in their own factions for the demimonde, I want readers to plug in a lot of their own music, too, so that every reading is different.

(*) quote from the book
Read also this older interview with Justin.

Playing with the Company 5: a World Made by Greed

He held out his hands and added brightly, “And it cuts overhead costs by sixty percent!
Kage Baker, The Sons of Heaven

Greed, not the greater good
The novels of the Company describe a future where capital comes to dominate the whole history of the world, where stock in a company entitles to a share in the plunder of the past, where the events are shaped by greed and other vices. In this world, official History does not reflect the truth. It is but a Potemkine village hiding exploitation; not the worst exploitation, mind you -the members of the board of Dr. Zeus do not revel in the misery of other human beings-, but the farthest-reaching ever devised.
All of it is the result of a business plan: Dr. Zeus Incorporated provides customers with information, items and living things of all origins. Cyborgs are listed as assets and employees. Somewhere, there is a balance sheet where their fate is weighed by accountants. Cyborgs are not supposed to better humanity in the course of their operations. If they help civilization move along, it is only because, doh, at the end of civilization lies the Company, so civilization is the way to go, or so goes corporate logic.
There are not enough checks and balances to prevent the Company from resorting to unethical practices. The Company develops a "production force" without regard for ethics nor sustainable development and, when faced with the human resources equivalent of nuclear waste, picks the wrong choices.

How would greed impact gameplay?
I am no accountant but I think a game based on the Company novels should factorize three elements.

1) The heavy cost of transportation of employees and items into the past, combined with initially limited cashflow, means the Company minimizes time travel at first. Later in narrative time, when the revenue kicks in (exponentially), it can expand its time-traveling operations enormously. However, this is done at the expense of possibilities. This is the entropic trade-off: as the Company gets rich, History calcifies.

2) The procuration of items as social control: the dog does not bite the hand of the master who feeds it. Cyborgs are provided with equipment and delicacies such as alcohol or even Theobromos. At some level, such resources are part of the delicate formula of programming, monitoring and other techniques devised to help control the cyborgs. One can imagine, for example, that the official goal of a game, as the Silence gets closer, would be to accumulate good performance reviews in order to get a big bonus with one's 2355 pension plan.

3) Capital changing hands. Who owns the Company indeed? As time goes by, the system embodified by the Company is less and less motivated by greed. Employees, managers and even stockholders can stop being on top of things.

The process of changing History is like Clausewitzian War; once begun, it takes a life of its own and pursues its own objectives according to its own internal logic. Greed is just the kickstarter.

Playing with the Company 4: Words about the Silence

"[Dr. Zeus] seemed to be blind to whatever might lie beyond 9 July 2355 AD."
Kage Baker, The Sons of Heaven

In the Company novels, the future is off limits; Dr. Zeus can only project its power into the past and the present. No one knows what lies beyond 2355, because no time traveler has come forward to talk about it. This date is known as the Silence.
In narrative terms, the Silence is a singularity, a Planck wall, a quantum frontier: the closer you approach it, the more the rules change and history seems to accelerate, until a narrative big bang that is the single most important moment in History. Everything builds up to the point of maximal entropy, when there is no time left and thus no options to explore.

The Silence is a keeper
I envision two distinct exciting uses of the Silence in a game based on the Company setting: as the horizon (as seen from the past) and as the climax (as experienced in 2355 in the novels).

The horizon
The Silence might be completely absent from the first part of the gaming experience, then creep slowly to the level of player awareness, then loom dreadfully over the last games. The players should experience doubt about this event until it completes. There should be an emotional build-up for the last scenes.
The Silence is also a blank slate which leaves open the future. As long as the future is not written, it can be changed -that is the theory.
As players get close to the Silence, they should:
- know more and more, allowing them to make more informed choices;
- have less and less time to act upon this knowledge to fulfill their endgame objectives.

The climax
When the scenes of the Silence unfold, players might have little real choices (they lack time) while being unable to predict the outcome with 100% accuracy. Everybody, not only cyborgs, is facing the Silence.
I would find it interesting to change the game rules at this last stage to reflect both the diminution of options and the sense of uncertainty. Why not revert to an old school simulationist model for the last epic scenes?

Not the "END" stamp
I guess we can consider that, after the Silence, the future of the world is set. If anybody won, that is not something that can be taken back. This is the end of Company history and the beginning of something else. Perhaps, once you get there, the game is over and an entirely different one begins, with different stakes. For example, the Silence may make it possible for the player characters to pursue different activities, to try to bring their own stories to satisfactory closure by achieving deeply personal goals that could not fit within the grand strategy storyline that culminated with the Silence.

Playing with the Company 3: Taming the Serpent

"Paradox? If you view time as a linear flow, certainly. Not, however, if you finally pay attention to the ancients and regard time (not eternity) as a serpent biting its own tail, or perhaps a spiral."
Kage Baker, The Life of the World to Come

Methodological solipsists vs Area Man
When you write about past events, or when you contemplate them from the vantage of "eternity", you can afford to regard time as a serpent. You can assemble the pieces of the puzzle that is its skin with all the patience in Heaven, safe in the knowledge that it's all a done deal: only interpretation of history is susceptible to change, not the events themselves.
But, in most cases, for us down here in the mud of passing time, crawling through the days, worming our way to the future, you kind of have to experience time as a linear flow.

Stop creating universes please
While I love a good story, my first instinct is to dislike tales of travel in the past - you can travel in the future all you want, no one cares if you disappear, but don't you create a second version of the universe by saving Joan of Arc from her judges or something like that. My brain hurts just thinking about it.
Did the above-quoted ancients delve into the intricacies of time paradoxes? From where I stand, for practical purposes, time is linear and causality needs to be paid its dues, hence the desire to eradicate paradox. This is an endless topic, fit for clear minds like Philosophy Bro, but my goal here is to grasp how time functions in the Company novels and how it can be used in a game.

Unicity and authenticity
There are two redeeming features in the way Kage Baker handles time travel in her novels.
1) There is one world, one continuum, one story and one history; only our knowledge of the past can be changed, though we retain our free will and can exercise it within the boundaries of the story. The Company tells (to itself) the story that the treasures lost to time and now recovered have in fact be made to disappear by them in the first place.
2) History is paid respect. It does not feel like a theme park. There is a sense of difference.

Gameplay around time
Paradox: since only one history does exist in the Company novels, paradoxes that posit fundamental inconsistencies within the story are unstable and prone to disappear once the whole story gets known. Getting to explain how something is not paradoxical (hopefully gearing causality your side in the process) can be a fun and meaningful gaming objective.
Flashbacks: they function differently in real life and in the diverse gaming media. Game mechanics can provide a framework to simulate flashbacks without breaking causality and unicity. Cyborgs do not fear permanent death, so that is one major hurdle out of the way to explain unlikely comebacks away. Every game could be a flashback, or it could be used the way it is used in movies, to highlight significant aspects of the story being told.
Uchrony: the clash of technologies and behaviors is savory and holds both comic and dramatic potential. But History is savored quite differently with a cyborg perspective. It could be interesting to have players and/or characters graduate to the truth of the universe, from simple mortals to cyborgs.

Phew! I almost divided by zero.

Playing with the Company 2: Theobromos

"Our masters were horrified when they discovered that chocolate gets us pleasantly stoned, because they thought they'd designed us to be proof against intoxicants. They even tried to forbid it to us, but must have realized they'd have a revolt on their hands if they did, and settled for strictly regulating our use of the stuff. Or trying to, anyway."
Kage Baker, The Children of the Company

In the Company novels, most cyborgs use and abuse of Theobromos (a.k.a. chocolate) whenever they can get their hands on some. This is at times a difficult proposition, given that operatives are sent in the human world for extended periods of time and in places that can be quite far from Mexico, Central and South America, the places of production of cacao for a large part of recorded history.
Theobromos is one of the more humorous elements in the series. The idea that Company employees get their kicks out of chocolate (not unlike Kage Baker used to herself, so it seems) deflates the testosterone-heavy stereotype of humorless super-agents from the future that springs to mind when you mention the words "immortal cyborgs". This attraction which borders on addiction reminds me, on a smaller scale, of the one of the Newcomers in the movie Alien Nation. Theobromos, when corporate policy does not prohibit it entirely, is certainly used as a carrot by the management. And the substance is not entirely harmless. Excess of consumption leads to "theobromine poisoning".
Ironically, the cyborgs, while technically removed from humanity, share more tastes with us than with their 24th century human masters who have given up on cigarettes, alcohol, meat, milk, sex and chocolate.

Does chocolate need game mechanics?
The question is open. Theobromos should remain an element of fun and stay on the periphery of things.
Gameplay could revolve around finding the balance between the thrill of forbidden food / joy of instant gratification and the risk of getting caught / losing status with your immortal employer.
Simulating addiction and pleasure is difficult due to the disconnection between the perception of the player and that of the character and the way our brain is wired to select different options depending on what our stomach tells us. I am tempted to use real chocolate on the gaming table in order to appeal to the real hunger of players. It is a difficult exercise: I would not want to frustrate the players out of proportion with the intended result. Perhaps, like children, they should be able to grab their candy when the management / game master looks the other way.